What started out as a one-sided blowout-in-the-making turned into a nail-biting, highest scoring game in Rose Bowl history between No. 9 USC and No. 5 Penn State.
And for the Trojans, a thrilling 52-49 win on a game-winning 46-yard field goal by redshirt junior placekicker Matt Boermeester was a fitting end to their long-awaited return to the “Grandaddy of Them All.”
“These kids that I’ve had the honor to coach, they are the definition of ‘Fight On,'” head coach Clay Helton said. “Whether it was a season or this game, this game signified what our whole season has been about: Never quit, keep competing, and good things will happen to you if you do.”
USC came back from a 49-35 deficit in the fourth quarter. Midway through the quarter, USC cut the Penn State lead down to a touchdown on the strength of an 83-yard drive that ended with sophomore running back Ronald Jones II running it in from three yards out.
And with 1:20 left, redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold led the Trojans on an 80-yard, game-tying drive that took just 39 seconds. Following two pass interference penalties, Darnold found sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett for his third touchdown of the night to tie the game at 49-49. It was a perfectly-fitted pass through the defense, which Darnold attempted despite other open receivers.
The quarterback said Burnett was supposed to run a straight route rather than a post route.
“But just the player that he is,” Darnold said. “He made a play, and I saw him. So I’m happy I threw it to him and not the shallow [receiver].”
Then, on the ensuing Penn State drive, senior defensive back Leon McQuay III intercepted Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and returned it back to Nittany Lions’ 35-yard line with 27 seconds on the clock. McQuay waited back on McSorley’s throw to the right sideline before leaping and hauling it in for a big return.
“I didn’t know whether to block or celebrate,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu said. “I did both.”
Soon, he would just be celebrating as moments later, Boermeester made the field goal with no time remaining for the win. Despite missing from 51 and 49 yards earlier in the game, the kicker trusted his technique.
“It doesn’t really make a difference how far it is, the ball still has to go straight,” Boermeester said. “So just keep the same mindset, same swing. Game was on the line, but you’ve got to keep true to your technique and trust it.”
The Trojans allowed seven touchdowns on seven consecutive drives to Penn State after the first quarter, but stood tall in the fourth with two big defensive stands with the game on the line.
“The score was close, but we knew we still had a chance and there was a lot of time left,” senior linebacker Michael Hutchings said. “We just took it snap by snap and we were playing for pride. It became apparent each play guys were coming in clutch. The guys up front were making plays.
“All we tried to do was give [the offense] a chance, and that’s what we did.”
Leading 27-21 at halftime, USC allowed 21 consecutive points by Penn State, which scored three touchdowns in rapid succession. On the Nittany Lions’ first play from scrimmage in the second half, running back Saquon Barkley stutter stepped, broke tackles and wove his way down the field for a 79-yard touchdown to give Penn State its first lead of the game.
The barrage was just getting started. After a USC punt, McSorley unleashed a 72-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin, who tipped the ball away from sophomore defensive back Iman Marshall and came down with it to run in for the score.
It went from bad to worse, as redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold was intercepted in his own end on the ensuing USC drive. Brandon Bell returned it to the 3-yard line, where McSorley ran it himself for the touchdown. Three plays, three touchdowns and a 42-27 Penn State lead.
The Trojans tried to answer. Darnold delivered a 13-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to cut the deficit back to one score. But the defense soon allowed its seventh touchdown in as many Penn State drives as McSorley ended a nearly five-minute march down the field with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Barkley.
However, the defense didn’t waver when it mattered most.
“I think when the time was right and we had to have a stop, we entrusted them to get it done,” Helton said.
Darnold threw for 453 yards and five touchdowns, completing 33 of 53 passes. His favorite target was Burnett, who recorded 13 receptions for 164 yards and three touchdowns.
“Me and Sam are always having talks,” Burnett said. “I see what I see and what he sees around the field. When you put that together you can have a great game.”
USC benefited from a poor start from Penn State. The Nittany Lions nearly fumbled the opening kickoff, and McSorley’s first two passes were both intercepted by USC as sophomore defensive back Iman Marshall and junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson claimed picks.
The Trojans didn’t capitalized on the first opportunity as Boermeester missed a 51-yard field goal attempt, but they did on the second. Shortly after delivering his first completion on a third down pass to Smith-Schuster, Darnold calmly stepped up and found wide-open sophomore wide receiver Deontay Burnett for a 26-yard touchdown to put USC on the board first.
A pair of three-and-outs on Penn State’s next two drives resulted in USC field goals that put the Trojans up 13-0 after one quarter.
McSorley finally found his rhythm in the second quarter, however, as both offenses started roaring. The two teams traded touchdowns on the first five possessions. McSorley targeted Godwin at will on the first drive, finding him four times to set up a 24-yard run by running back Saquon Barkley for Penn State’s first score.
USC answered quickly, though, on a drive that took under 1:30. Darnold found Burnett for a gain of 32 yards, senior running back Justin Davis had a long run to set up first and goal and a three-yard touchdown pass to Darnold capped it off.
Penn State matched USC with a short touchdown drive in response as Godwin kept making plays. He made a spectacular catch for a 31-yard touchdown after McSorley rolled to his right and tossed it up; Godwin just got a foot in the right corner of the end zone to cut the USC lead back to six.
Darnold marched the Trojans right back up the field, finding senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers on a back-shoulder throw for a three-yard touchdown after big plays to Jackson and Smith-Schuster.
The Nittany Lions ate up much of the remainder of the first half clock with a drive that went over five minutes and was finished off with another great catch, as Mike Gesicki extended back for an 11-yard touchdown reception.
Boermeester missed a 49-yard field goal attempt to end the half to keep USC’s lead at 27-21.
The win moved USC to 25-8 all-time in the Rose Bowl, with its 52 points the most ever that it has recorded in the bowl game. It was as a dramatic, nerve-wracking and exciting a game as the program has seen in a while, and — according to Helton — it was the stuff of legend.
“I think about Sam, I think about Barkley, I think about Burnett, Trace — both sides of the ball were just … The greatest players shined brightest on the biggest stage, and both teams had it,” Helton said. “Whether it was our quarterback, whether it was their quarterback or several skilled athletes, it was an amazing game. It’s what fairy tales are made of.”